By Kazuto Suzuki
Space race is back in great power competition. China has steadily been developing its capabilities for space exploration after its successful human space flight in 2003, and especially, the success of landing of lunar rover, Chang’e-4, on the other side of the Moon. This was the first time that China has achieved that no other spacefaring nation has not achieved, and its success proved real potential that China would send its taikonauts (Chinese astronauts) in near future.
Such Chinese successes have made the United States anxious that its monopoly of glory as the only nation to send astronauts to the Moon will be undermined. President Trump and Vice-President Pence are very keen on “going back to the Moon”. The first Presidential Space Policy Directive set the objective of US space exploration goal as to go back to the Moon and beyond. In the first teleconference between President Trump and the astronauts in the International Space Station, he asked if it is possible to go to Mars within his presidency (assuming that he will serve for two terms). Such ambition and impatience of President Trump brought the target year of Artemis program, the moon landing program, from 2028 to 2024, which means that NASA shall achieve this objective in five years.
In order to achieve such goal, the United States needs to employ all available resources to go back to the Moon in less than half decade. NASA has already begun Commercial Lunar Payload Services (CLPS) program to bring commercial companies to develop lunar lander vehicles and could possibly use commercial launcher such as Falcon Heavy if NASA was not able to develop its own launcher, Space Launch System (SLS). However, it is not just landing on the Moon by 2024 but also building foundation for the Moon and “beyond”. This foundation will be called the Lunar Gateway program, which is to build space station on cislunar orbit as the base to explore Moon and train astronauts for the trip to Mars. Japan, Europe, Canada and even Russia are planning to join this Gateway program. However, given a rapid change of US policies, especially moving the target year of Artemis program to 2024 made international partners confused whether Gateway program will be fully funded and politically supported.
Meanwhile, India has been successful for sending its robotic probes to Moon (Chandrayaan-1) and to Mars (Mangalyaan-1), and it is now preparing to send another lunar exploration lander, Chandrayaan-2, in July2019. Further, India is developing Shukrayaan-1, Venus orbiter, which is planned to launch in 2023. Such impressive record of Indian programs has proven that India is capable to participating international space race for planetary exploration without depending on other countries. This was an impressive departure from the thoughts of Vikram Sarabhai, the father of Indian space programs. He set the course of Indian space activities as relevant to a developing nation, which means no fantasy of competing in “the exploration of the moon or the planets or manned space-flight” and playing meaningful role in “the application of advanced technologies to the real problems of man and society”. India has already achieved number of successful goals by developing satellites for Earth observation, communications and navigation. The Indian programs have moved to the next phase by developing those interstellar probes and participating international competition in the exploration of the Moon and Mars.
The big question, from outside perspective, is whether India would change its course of developing autonomous capabilities or open for international cooperation. For many years, India with Sarabhai’s thoughts proceeded its space programs mostly by its own effort and remained shy of international cooperation. However, the exploration programs, especially in the situation where great power competition for Moon exploration is the name of the game, are political as much as scientific endeavors. If India would go it alone, it would heat up international competition, and possibly such space race may encourage competition on the ground just as Cold War space race did.
In this context, Indo-Japan cooperation would play an important role. In December 2017, JAXA and ISRO had signed on the Implementing Agreement on lunar exploration. This agreement is designed to build lander and rover on the Moon. This program will have international significance because its aim is to explore the polar region of the Moon, where there is a high probability that water may be found. It will have not only the scientific value but also commercial and strategic value for further exploration on the Moon and to Mars, because water can be used both for human exploration and for rocket fuel to launch from the Moon. If this program finds water on the Moon for the first time in the human history, it will give much bigger impact than the landing of astronauts by the United States or China, since there were already 12 astronauts already landed on the Moon.
Japan will play an interesting role of bridging the Indo-Japan cooperation of the lunar polar exploration and the Lunar Gateway program. It will also play a role for connecting the participants of Gateway program and Indian experience of lunar exploration. In this way, Indo-Japan cooperation will provide alternatives to the great power space race, and bring back space exploration to much valuable activity for human kind.
(The author is Professor of International Political Economy, Graduate School of Public Policy, Hokkaido University. Views expressed are personal.)